CNN  — 

Surrounded by brightly colored banners and fellow climate activists, three Extinction Rebellion protestors climbed atop an oil tanker in April, blocked one of central London’s main roads and were arrested.

Among those protesting were British Olympians Etienne Stott – a London 2012 canoe slalom gold medalist who was arrested – and Laura Baldwin, a sailor who competed in the 2004 Games.

On the other side of the world, meanwhile, former rugby union star David Pocock was preparing for election day and the conclusion of his independent senate campaign in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT).

Running on a progressive platform that advocated for climate action, improved housing affordability and restoring the ACT’s right to legislate on voluntary assisted dying, Pocock pulled off a shock victory and unseated the incumbent senator, Zed Seselja.

The result was confirmed on June 14, almost a month after the election, following Australia’s intricate vote-counting process.


For each of these athletes, their connection to the environment began many years ago.

Baldwin became attuned to the realities of climate change out on the water, sailing among surfacing whales, dolphins and turtles.

“I was acutely aware … of how we were going to more and more competitions and the locals were saying, ‘The weather is never normally like this’ … It was quite eye-opening,” she tells CNN Sport.

Then, visiting a friend who was reading about climate change ahead of the World Economic Forum in 2019, Baldwin realized the true extent of the crisis and was prompted to become an activist.

“It was like reading the script to a horror movie,” she says.

Baldwin is also on the Green Party England and Wales Executive Campaigns Committee.

Stott’s transition from athlete to climate activist was a more gradual process, founded upon his lifelong love of the outdoors, similar to Pocock who initially worked as a conservationist following his retirement from rugby.

Before joining Extinction Rebellion, Stott co-founded a group called Champions for Earth composed of British athletes to advocate for climate action.

“Sport has this incredible reach,” he tells CNN. “It gives people a shared emotional experience that kind of connects them in a really strong way.”

Similarly, Pocock’s senate campaign was not his first foray into the political world; his rugby career was marked by activism.

In 2014, he chained himself to mining equipment to protest a new coal mine at Maules Creek in New South Wales, while he and his now wife did not marry until same-sex marriage became legal in Australia.

“I knew what it was like to be that young kid that idolized rugby players,” he says to CNN.

“If I could use whatever platform I had while I was playing to actually talk about these issues that I thought were important and could further the conversation with young people, then I was willing to do that.”

‘My athlete mindset kicked in’

As the climate crisis becomes more pronounced, Pocock, Stott and Baldwin have utilized these platforms and drawn upon all their sporting experience to intensify their campaigning.

“You realize a bunch of skills that you’ve spent thousands of hours developing, you will never use again,” Pocock says wryly.

“That’s sort of totally useless for the rest of your life.”

Although tackling, jackaling and passing might not be useful in a senate campaign, other skills that Pocock developed in rugby proved key to his success such as working with people who hold different views to pursue the best interests of a team.

“You come from different backgrounds, have different religious beliefs, political persuasions, but have some sort of shared goal. And that can be a really powerful thing,” he says.

Mastering this broad coalition allowed Pocock to win in a territory that was previously unwinnable for anyone other than Labor or the Liberals – the two largest parties in Australia.

Pocock held a series of forums he called 'Politics in the park.'

Pocock’s campaign was rooted in community organizing, with forums and events he named ‘Politics in the park’ offering opportunities for people to engage with policies.

“It really was about connecting with people,” Pocock says. “Meeting with community organizations … finding out what the issues are and then actually sitting down and talking to experts.”

“And you find for a lot of these problems, there are solutions. We really need the political will to actually do them.”

Likewise, drawing upon his experience in canoeing has informed much of Stott’s activism. “My athlete mindset kicked in,” he says.

“We’ve got a goal here; a really clear goal that we need to save our planet for future generations … and Extinction Rebellion had a really clear goal.”

Extinction Rebellion has used public disruption and unlawful demonstrations to demand the UK government reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025 and establish a citizens’ assembly to consult on climate justice.

“Also then as an athlete, you look for the most effective methods that are going to send you towards your goal,” Stott adds, “and peaceful civil disobedience was proven in history to be the most effective method.”

This approach has given rise to the group’s trademark, disruptive tactics such as blocking traffic in London, blockading oil refineries and widely covered arrests of its peaceful protestors.

Stott was arrested after climbing on top of an oil tanker.

“Most people, and I was absolutely the same, would never dream of breaking the law … But in this case, I believe, motivated entirely by care, the concern for others and a desire to do the right thing, it just makes so much sense,” says Stott.

Extinction Rebellion’s extreme tactics have drawn attention to the urgency of the crisis.

Weeks after the group’s first protest in 2019 which disrupted much of central London, the UK parliament declared a climate emergency.

Its approach has also drawn criticism from many quarters: the British government, other activists for its lack of diversity and the British public of whom just 15% approve, according to a YouGov poll.

READ: Why climate activists aren’t buying the FIFA World Cup’s ‘green’ claims

“I’ve been asked multiple times by journalists, ‘Are you not worried about your reputation,’ but really I’m just worried about safeguarding a future for my son,” Baldwin says.

“It seemed like the morally right thing to be doing in this instance was literally to step out in front of the system itself.”

‘Telling the more hopeful story’

Campaigning inside and outside the system produces different effects.

Pocock’s goals, constrained by acting within government, are somewhat more modest than those of Extinction Rebellion, aiming for a net zero Australian economy by 2050 with a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 – but this is a trade-off worth making for him.

Pocock also led The Cool Down campaign which saw over 470 Australian athletes call for more climate action.

“When it comes to the big problems we face, individual choices and actions are important, but ultimately they have to be scaled by government to be able to respond in the timeframe needed,” he says.

By marshaling government policy, Pocock aims to tell “the more hopeful story about what our future could look like.”

For Australia – a country rocked by wildfires and floods – the dangers of the climate crisis are all too evident but action that tackles these risks could also unlock new opportunities in industries like green steel and green hydrogen, Pocock says.

Working in government has its own drawbacks too; its wheels move slowly and there are limited resources.

“The climate crisis is happening right now,” Baldwin says of her decision to campaign outside the system. “And we absolutely have to act now in order to stop it.”